Winter is finally over — hurrah! But don’t let the balmy spring sun fool you, at times it’s just as strong as it is in the height of summer, so topping up your SPF is the only way you can protect your skin from the sun’s harsh UV rays. Here, we debunk some of the common myths around sun safety and the dangers of exposing your skin to the sun without wearing the right SPF.
Did you know that two in three Australians will be diagnosed with skin cancer by the age of 70? Australia has one of the highest rates of skin cancer in the world, and is responsible for almost 2000 deaths each year. But did you also know that this disease is entirely preventable?
Living in Australia, we’re all familiar with how harsh the sun can be. It’s been drilled into us to slather on factor 30 (or more) when we’re basking on the beach in the sweltering summer sun. But it’s not just summer that calls for a strong SPF. The antipodean sun is strong all-year-round, so keeping it protected from the powerful UV rays will not only stop you from burning, it will significantly reduce your risk of skin cancer, and protect your skin from premature ageing.
Even on those cloudy, rainy days, you should be wearing sunscreen. It’s the most powerful skincare product you’ll own. Can you name another product that works immediately as soon as you apply it, and keeps your face looking healthy, wrinkle-free, and youthful for years on end? It’s a little mind-boggling you wouldn’t be wearing it every day.
While many of you wear sunscreen during the summer months, it’s essential in winter, spring and autumn, too. Especially living in Australia. You’ve got to wear sunscreen every day of the year, come rain or shine. Ultraviolet rays are the cause of sun damage and skin cancer, and they are always present, irrespective of how hot or cold it is.
Even on overcast days, only visible rays (but not UVB rays) from the sun are blocked. So the best way to protect your skin is by wearing sunscreen.
We’ve all been guilt of stepping outside without sunscreen at one time or another, but after reading this, you might just rethink your daily skincare routine.
Here’s why you should never leave the house without wearing an SPF.
Why sunscreen is so important
We all need sun exposure. When our skin is exposed to the sun, our bodies produce vitamin D, which helps the body absorb calcium for stronger, healthier bones. You’ll also find that getting a daily dose of sunshine will boost your mood and improve your overall happiness. No wonder we’re all in such a rush to get outside!
But over time, too much unprotected exposure to the sun's ultraviolet (UV) rays can cause skin damage, eye damage, immune system suppression, and even skin cancer. Even people in their twenties can develop skin cancer.
The best advice is to limit your sun exposure — try not to stay out in the sun all day, seek shade and cover your body where you can — and wear an SPF sunscreen to protect your skin from the damaging UV rays.
Sunscreen contains active ingredients that prevent UV rays from penetrating the skin. By blocking these UV rays, it reduces your risk of sunburn and skin cancer, sunspots, skin discolouration and signs of premature ageing.
90% of skin cancers can be attributed to sun damage, which basically makes sunscreen your new skincare BFF. Any form of sun protection will reduce the risk of skin cancer, but it’s advised to wear a broad spectrum, water resistant SPF30+ (or higher) sunscreen.
Broad spectrum sunscreens offer protection from both UVA and UVB rays, the two types of harmful UV radiation emitted by the sun.
UVB is the principal cause of sunburn, but both UVA and UVB can increase your risk of skin cancer.
What is UV?
Ultraviolet (UV) is a form of energy produced by the sun. It produces different types of energy
- Visible light – which we can see as sunlight.
- Infrared radiation – which we feel as heat.
- UV radiation – which we cannot see or feel.
But it’s UV radiation that is harmful to our skin. UV rays can be high on even cool and overcast days — and they reflect off of surfaces like water, cement, sand, and snow — so you can’t rely on clear skies or high temperatures to protect yourself from the sun.
Exposure to UV radiation from the sun and other sources (including solariums) is the leading cause of skin cancer. Particularly in Australia; it has some of the highest levels of UV radiation in the world – in fact, UV radiation is strong enough to cause sunburn in as little as 11 minutes on a hot summer’s day.
Thick clouds can provide a filter, but UV radiation can still penetrate through thin clouds, putting your skin at risk of UV damage. And while UV radiation is higher in summer than in winter, it’s still present every day of the year.
There are two basic types of ultraviolet rays that reach the earth’s surface—UVB and UVA:
UVA can cause sunburn, DNA (cell) damage in the skin and skin cancer.
UVB causes skin damage and skin cancer. Ozone stops most UVB from reaching the earth’s surface, but about 15% is transmitted.
UVB rays are responsible for producing sunburn. The UVB rays also play the greatest role in causing skin cancers, including the deadly black mole form of skin cancer (malignant melanoma).
UVA rays also play a role in skin cancer formation. UVA rays also penetrate more deeply into the skin, causing wrinkles and premature ageing.
There are approximately 500 times more UVA rays in sunlight than UVB rays, so it’s important to use a sunscreen that protects your skin from both UVA and UVB simultaneously.
How do I know how high the UV is?
The UV levels emitted by the sun change day to day, and can be affected by a number of factors including geographic location, altitude, time of day, time of year and cloud cover. This means that UV levels are higher in some parts of Australia than others even on the same day.
UV levels and peak sun protection times are often included in local weather forecasts, so you can use these as a guide to inform when you should avoid being out in the sun.
The UV Index divides UV radiation levels into:
- low (1-2)
- moderate (3-5)
- high (6-7)
- very high (8-10)
- extreme (11 and above)
But even when the UV index is considered “moderate” – a rating of 3-5 on a scale of 11 – UVA and UVB is still present, so you should still wear sunscreen on your face and body to protect against the harmful rays. Even in winter — UV is present all-year-round.
UVA also doesn’t burn the skin like UVB, which means that although damage is occurring, you may not even be aware of it. The effects of the damage may not be immediately visible — some sun damage can appear years later.
Generally speaking, midday sun tends to be the strongest — in Australia it can reach in excess of 12-14 in peak summer, and 16-17 in more northern latitudes. But to take out the guess work, you can download the Cancer Council’s SunSmart app, it tells you when the UV levels are high, lets you know when you do and don't need sun protection for any location in Australia, and alerts you to when you need to top up your sunscreen, as well as how much you need to apply.
Cancer Council recommend using sunscreen every day on days when the UV Index is forecast to be 3 or above. On these days, sunscreen should be incorporated into your daily morning routine.
Which sunscreen should I go for?
There are a number of sunscreens you can choose from, from tinted face sunscreens to all-over body sprays. [I have another sunscreen article I have started to write I can link to here] The best way to get started is to look for sun protection that’s been approved by the Therapeutic Goods Administration. Also opt for one that suits your skin type. e.g. if you have sensitive or blemish-prone skin, there are lightweight, non-greasy formulas that have been designed specifically for the face.
Not all sunscreens contain the same ingredients. If your skin reacts to one sunscreen, talk to your pharmacist or doctor about choosing one with different ingredients.
La Roche-Posay Anthelios Sunscreen SPF50+ 50mL
Avene Sunscreen Spray SPF50+ 200mL
Cancer Council Kids Sunscreen SPF50+ 200mL
Banana Boat Sport Sunscreen SPF50+ 40g
Natio Broad Spectrum Sunscreen SPF50+ 100mL
Neutrogena Beach Defence Lotion SPF50 198mL
Be sure to check the expiry date of the sunscreen and the storage conditions recommended on the label. Most sunscreens last about two to three years and should be stored at a temperature below 30ºC.
Sunscreen is not recommended for babies under 6 months. You should keep infants out of the sun and keep them covered with protective clothing.
Of course, if you’re desperate for a tan, but don’t want to expose your skin to the sun, you can try a fake tan or gradual tanner instead. They look just as good and don’t cause any skin damage.
Nivea Protect & Moisture Sunscreen SPF30 200mL
Sun Bum Original Face SPF50 Sunscreen 88mL
Ocean Australia SPF50+ Mineral Kids Sunscreen 120g
Myth #1: Sun damage is not possible on windy, cloudy days.
Sun damage is caused by ultraviolet (UV) radiation, not temperature. A cool or overcast day in summer can have similar UV levels to a warm, sunny day. You need to use sun protection every day. It doesn’t matter if it’s sunny, cloudy, or raining—UVR is always there during daylight
Myth #2: Wearing sunscreen protects me from the sun.
No sunscreen provides 100% protection from UV. SPF30 sunscreens filter about 96.7% of UV radiation, SPF50+ sunscreens filter 98% of UV. You should always try to keep your skin covered when UV rays are high. Apply a broad spectrum SPF30 or higher sunscreen every day, and reapply every two hours. This will protect you from reflected UV rays from surfaces like water, sand and concrete.
Myth # 3: People with darker skin are less likely to get skin cancer.
Exposure to UV radiation from the sun and other artificial sources, such as solariums, can cause skin to be permanently damaged, regardless of skin type. People with darker skin are less likely to burn, but they can still receive enough UV exposure to risk developing skin cancer.
Myth #4: You can stay out in the sun for longer wearing an SPF50+ than you can with SPF30.
SPF50 only actually offers a little more protection than SPF50. SPF30 sunscreens filter about 96.7% of UV radiation, whereas SPF50+ sunscreens filter 98% of UV.
You should apply SPF30 or higher before heading outside, then reapply every two hours, after swimming, sweating, or towel drying. You should never use sunscreen to extend the amount of time you spend in the sun.
Myth # 5: You don’t need sunscreen if you’re wearing makeup.
Unless it’s specifically labelled with SPF30 or higher, you should wear a sunscreen underneath your makeup if your skin is exposed to the sun. For longer periods, use a separate sunscreen and reapply every two hours throughout the day.
Myth #6: You’ll only get skin cancer if you lie in the sun.
Australia is a high UV environment, which means we can be exposed to dangerous levels of UV radiation on a daily basis, when working outdoors, gardening, walking the dog, even sitting outside and having a drink. This sun exposure adds up over time, increasing the risk of skin cancer, so it’s not just people sunbathing on the beach who are at risk, we all are.
Myth #7: If you tan but don’t burn, you don’t need to wear sunscreen.
When skin darkens it’s a sign that your skin cells are in trauma, even if there’s no redness or peeling. When your skin darkens, it’s trying to protect itself because the UV rays are damaging living cells. If you tan easily, you’re still at risk of skin cancer and need to use sun protection.
Loved our advice on sun safety? We've got plenty more helpful tips and expert health advice to check out on our Health & Wellness Edit. Can supplements really boost your immune system? Are you suffering from depression or could you have vitamin D deficiency?